Reinvigorating Community Corrections: A View from Down Under

By Daley, David | Corrections Today, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Reinvigorating Community Corrections: A View from Down Under


Daley, David, Corrections Today


In the preface of the 1972 edition of The Labors of John Augustus, republished by the American Probation and Parole Association in 1984, the bold prediction was made that "like other countries, the United States is, at long last, finding that probation is the answer to prison reform." Admittedly, this optimism preceded Robert Martinson's landmark Public Interest article in 1974, questioning the rehabilitative ideal. The subsequent resurgence of retribution as the cornerstone of corrections and the rhetoric of "getting tough on crime" and "law and order" are both well-known to corrections professionals throughout the English-speaking world.

North American travelers to Australia or New Zealand would be struck by the similarity of contemporary correctional trends and patterns. The principal difference is not one of kind, but only of scale. The Australian adult correctional population increased by 75 percent between 1988 and 1999, modest by U.S. comparisons, but it continues to grow. Only the state of Western Australia has begun to turn the tide. Historically a national trendsetter for high incarceration rates, Western Australia has achieved an 11 percent decrease in its adult prison population since October 2001. Among other things, it has legislated the abolition of prison sentences of less than six months. Whether sentencing patterns will be adjusted over time to confound the intent of the legislation remains to be seen.

A prevalent view in some Australian states in the 1990s was that community corrections had to demonstrate its credibility through tough regimes of order enforcement. The consequence was that, far from acting as an effective alternative to incarceration, community corrections fed higher levels of incarceration. Revocation for violations became a significant cause of incarceration. Judges and magistrates in some jurisdictions, concerned about the preoccupation with order enforcement at the expense of helping offenders address their criminal behavior, saw less reason to use probation or other forms of community-based supervision.

Although the U.S. experience with community corrections has paralleled many characteristics of its Australian counterparts, trends are perhaps moving less synchronously. The U.S. National Institute of Corrections publication, Topics in Community Corrections--2002, reports with considerable pessimism on the tightening budgetary climate afflicting community corrections in much of the United States. In it, Dan Richard Beto of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas argues in the article, "From Excitement to Despair: Dealing With the Budget Crisis," that after a brief period of relative optimism in 1999 and 2000, stimulated by the "reinventing probation" movement, there was a decline again into despair by 2001. Fortunately, after a number of lean years for community corrections in Australia (this term includes both probation and parole), the climate of "reinvention" is alive and well, at least in some states. Cyclical change realities mean that the challenge is to capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves while they last.

In both countries, community corrections is keenly aware that its future depends on finding a way to convincingly portray itself as a vital partner in public safety enhancement and crime reduction. However, in the face of projected budget shortfalls, program cutbacks, unfunded mandates, reduced staff training and increasing caseloads, the struggle for survival can stifle creative approaches to building credibility.

Sowing the Seeds of Change

This article concentrates principally on the state of Victoria, which is home to nearly 5 million people and is roughly the size of Minnesota. In the 1980s, Victoria had a progressive reputation in correctional practice. That position eroded rapidly for community corrections in the 1990s, initially due to budgetary stringencies. Facing annual budget reductions, and with few options to reduce discretionary expenditures, a shift occurred in patterns of staff recruitment. …

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